Playing in the lead group on the afternoon side of the draw, the 26-year-old was 6-under at the turn on his way to an 8-under 64, the same mark Malaysias Iain Steel equalled in the final round one year ago on his way to his first Tour triumph. Lingering two shots back is B.C. amateur star James Lepp, sponsor invite Nathan Fritz, Erik Compton and Matt Bettencourt. Three others opened with a 5-under 67.
The weatherman cooperated with players and tournament organizers Thursday, offering up mild temperatures and clear blue skies all day long. The field made the most of the conditions, with 65 of the 156 players breaking par.
Habig reeled off four consecutive birdies on holes 8 through 11 to get to 8-under before cooling down with a bogey on the par-4 12th. After a stretch of five straight pars, he almost holed out for eagle on his approach on 17, sucking the ball back to within six inches and tapping in for birdie. On the final hole, Habig, who had good friend and fellow ex-Northwestern University player Brad Newman-Bennett acting as his caddie, just missed a six-footer for birdie that would have given him sole possession of the Swan-e-set Bay Resort and CC benchmark.
We were talking out on the fairway and I told Brad we were at a perfect distance for a full wedge and we laughed that maybe we could hole it out for eagle, said Habig of his near-miss on number 17. Those are the kind of shots you love, the ones you dont have to think about at all. My ball striking was good all day and I had a hot putterI had the mindset that I was just going to go as low as I could.
While Habig grabbed most of the headlines Thursday, Abbotsford amateur James Lepp was a close second with his 6-under 66. The 19-year-old phenom, the NCAA Big Ten Player of the Year and Second Team in All-American in 2002-03, birdied his first three holes out of the chute, including a 20-footer on the opening hole of the day. Playing just a few kilometres up the road from his hometown, Lepp is hoping to have a better showing in Vancouver than he did last season, when he bogeyed two holes late in the second round to miss the cut. On Thursday, Lepp was 4-under through his front side but missed some putts on the back nine that could have seen him finish even further in the red.
This is some of the best competition I have played against, and being at home makes it a little more special, said Lepp. I am expecting to play well here. It was frustrating on the back side'when you are playing well, you want to make as many birdies as possible. If I could have putted the way I know I can, I may have been at 64.
Lepp, a standout at the University of Illinois, caught most of the Vancouver media off guard Thursday when he announced he would be transferring to the University of Washington next year. Cutting through the red tape that is the NCAA transfer policy will determine if Lepp will play in Washington or if he will have to red-shirt it for the 2004 season, meaning he will not be allowed to compete in official college tournaments.
The new record is something Habig would have enjoyed adding to his resume, but he admitted it wont matter if he is standing on the 18th green Sunday afternoon collecting the winners cheque. In fact, the 64 wasnt even on his mind until he stood on the 18th tee, when Habig remembered reading Steel had tied the record to win last June. With his blistering start Thursday, Habig added, albeit tongue-in-cheek, that if he can keep his current pace he will likely find himself in the winners circle in three days.
That was the only time we even talked about it, (the record) standing on 18. You tend to get a little nervous when you start going low like that. But Im pretty sure if I can shoot 8-under the next three days, I have to like my chances.
Two and a half months after winning his first Canadian Tour title at the Michelin Guadalajara Classic, Compton, himself a Second Team All-American in 2001 while at the University of Georgia, also shot 4-under on his front nine to make an early statement. Early in the week, the former U.S. Walker and Palmer Cup team member couldnt get the mechanics of his swing down pat and stayed at the practice range until 9:30 Wednesday night trying to correct the problem.
I couldnt find the groove all week long but today I hit it well, so the extra work paid off, he reasoned. Its definitely a strategy game. The weather is perfect, the course is in great shape, and so you have to take advantage. But its just the first round. If I am there come Sunday afternoon, thats all I can ask for.
Fritz, playing this week on a Golf Channel exemption, also made the most of ideal scoring conditions Thursday. After a 15-foot birdie putt on his first hole, he holed out from a greenside bunker on number two to get an early jump. The 22-year-old played solid through the first 54 holes at last weeks Victoria Open, but struggled to a final round 5-over 75 that relegated him to 40th spot.
He provided some comic relief midway through Thursdays round when he had severe case of the hiccups, prompting one tournament volunteer to go out and offer advice on how to overcome the sudden attack.
It took all I could not to hiccup in the middle of someones backswing, he laughed. I couldnt figure out what was wrong. At least it gave us (playing partners Rafael Gemoets and Stuart Anderson) something to laugh about.
Since turning pro just two weeks ago, Fritz has played both Tour events in B.C. after The Golf Channel, in the province to broadcast both events live, offered him a spot each week. Others in his spot may have to come over an initial intimidation factor teeing it up with such a strong field but, talking to Fritz, he didnt seem fazed in the least.
I was really just a nobody, and The Golf Channel gave me the opportunity to make this happen. I knew I could play out here with these guys. The tournaments are well run and played on some great courses. But I am not worried about who I am playing against. Its not like I am stepping on the tee thinking Oh my God, I am playing on the Canadian Tour. Ill just do what I can and see where it leaves me.